A Steady Diet of Change
By Kiara Thomas
Fifteen patties sizzle on a blue Coleman propane grill in the backyard of a house in Queens Village. Two feet from the patties, on top of a black table cloth, eight aluminum pans of food heat up under warming fuel cans. With each new order, two masked brown-skinned girls with their hair in a bun and wearing gloves, lift metal food covers and serve a generous amount of barbeque ribs, macaroni and cheese and arroz con gandules in a cardboard to-go container. Groove Theory’s Tell Me, blasts from Dj OnPoint’s speakers as guests look at the menu of jackfruit carnitas, ginger chic’n, apotato salad, and other vegan versions of their favorite foods catered by The Vegan Plan Meal Prep.
The third annual Grill & Chill on Aug. 23 was hosted by Jason “Cheech” Hall, VICE’s director of merchandise and the host of Sauce Talk. About 200 attendees purchased from the vendors ranging from natural hair products to canned sea moss in 80-degree weather. A panel of Black women, ranging from a vegan bodybuilder, holistic health coach, vegan chef, and the owner of a mental health organization, spoke with Hall about their veganism journey and the importance of a healthy lifestyle when it comes to the Black community.
Among the attendees was 27-year-old sterile technician Kiya Huffman. The pescatarian from Uniondale attended her second Grill and Chill barbeque with her friend and cameraman, Jabari Mills. Huffman and her friend Josh McKenzie started the Youtube channel Vegans and Ventures last July to document their journey trying vegan food from eating Burger King’s Impossible Burger to cheese and onion empanadas in Barcelona. They filmed themselves attempting the vegan hot “wing” challenge before McKenzie went off to college and Huffman continued to make content on her own.
“Since I’ve started doing Vegans and Ventures that kind of put me onto a lot more [people in the vegan community] because I started to go to festivals and met way more vegan people. There aren’t many around me,” she said.
Huffman interviewed the vendors as Mills recorded on a camera. The video she would upload to Youtube weeks later on the barbeque would be Narnia-inspired. The pair laughed as they spoke off-camera and ate while getting acquainted with the other guests.
Growing up on Long Island, Huffman enjoyed Southern cooking from her mother and Nana. Collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie were just some of the foods that could be found on her plate. The first three months of transitioning to a vegan diet were difficult for her because she would smell her mom making her childhood favorites. But she said she won’t ever go back.
Huffman, who has been transitioning for almost three years, plans on becoming vegan by the age of 30. Her next step in her journey is to become vegetarian by 2021. She represents the growing trend of Black Americans turning to a vegan diet.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, eight percent of Black Americans follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diet compared to the three percent of overall Americans.
This is steady with a 2015 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, which found that eight percent of Black Americans are strict vegan or vegetarians compared to a total of 3.4 percent.
Americans are becoming more health-conscious, with 39 percent of them trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, according to a 2017 report by Nielsen. Documentaries and books over the past two decades, such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Super Size Me,” dissect the plethora of food options people are faced with and health problems that arise with consuming fast food. Documentaries that target a certain demographic, like “The Invisible Vegan,” a 2019 documentary focusing on the “unhealthy dietary patterns” of the Black community, influenced the food habits of underrepresented communities. The recent campaigns of fast-food chains including natural ingredients and meatless burgers and the attempts on a sugary drink tax also reflect the health-consciousness many Americans are adapting.
“[About] 70 percent of the people on my meal prep are not fully vegan,” said Ashley Johnson, co-owner of The Vegan Plan Meal Prep and The Vegan Plan Experience. “They are just on the meal prep because they want healthier options for themselves or for their family.”
Huffman attempted vegetarianism first when her vegan 12th grade teacher showed her class a video of how meat is packaged and delivered to supermarkets for purchase. The scenes that showed the slaughtering of animals troubled her. She went back to eating meat three months after watching the video.
Huffman decided to alter her diet a second time, almost six years later, when her cousin asked her to join her in becoming vegan. Though her cousin returned to the consumption of animal products, Huffman continued her journey. While adopting a pescatarian lifestyle, she learned about health problems that were common in her family.
“I kind of didn’t really know about it until I started to transition over,” Huffman said. “When I did stop, it did make my mom start to tell me that [transitioning was] good because diabetes does run in the family.”
Black Americans continue to have higher rates of obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke compared to other races and ethnicities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Young African Americans are living with diseases more common at older ages” and overall Black Americans are more likely to die early from high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Diet, family lineage and stress are linked to the likelihood of being diagnosed with diseases.
“From a diet perspective, I believe that having excess sugars can cause chronic diseases, things like diabetes,” said Brianne Brathwaite, registered dietitian nutritionist and certified life coach, said. “Overeating the amount of carbs can lead to obesity. Eating foods that are highly processed, and not really good for the body, in terms of how they’re made, can also cause us diseases. And having a lack of fruits and vegetables and antioxidants and vitamins, which goes along with eating a highly-processed diet can also have an effect [on our diet]”
History of Food within the African Diaspora
The modern diet of people from the African diaspora is different in terms of portions and ingredients than what their ancestors ate during the 15th century. Leafy greens, legumes, and grains, such as sorghum, millet, and rice were the staples in West and Central Africa before colonialism and slavery. One of the two domesticated rice species, Oryza glaberrima is native to West Africa along the rice belt region. Fish, including tilapia, was common for Africans along the Niger River Valley to eat for protein. In terms of poultry, they ate guinea fowl.
“If you look at the history of African Americans and our ancestors in Africa most came from West and Central Africa and most of us ate a diet that I would best describe as 90 percent vegetarian,” Food Studies professor at Babson College Dr. Frederick Opie said. “The meat that was consumed by our ancestors in Africa was largely on special occasions or it was used to season some of the food that we ate, which was largely plant food [related].”
Inexpensive meats, including pork and chicken, began to become a bigger part of the diet of people in the African diaspora through the arrival of Europeans to Africa and the enslavement of Africans. The combination of grain-based foods and meat continued for centuries and are a part of the Southern, Caribbean, and the West and Central African cooking that is seen today.
The decrease of physical labor by Black Americans since slavery, in addition to the high fat and high carbs diet and the stress of living post-slavery under white supremacy, encouraged the high rates of chronic health problems in the Black community.
“As we heard around the time of the vice presidential debate, Kamala Harris rightly said well we also have an embedded trauma from being part of the African diaspora, being the descendants of the enslaved, and all of the stressors we’re seeing with the demonstrations in the street,” Dr. Scott Barton, a board member of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, said. “So this contributes to the stress that contributes to diseases that we are seeing manifesting in our body. So to try to move away from that and embrace alternative eating methods that will extend our lives and ability and make us more productive within whatever sphere we participate in is in our best interest if we can see that before it’s too late, but often we don’t.”
Childhood Favorites Turned Vegan
Vegan food is normally associated with bland food, salads and the white community in mainstream media. Even though the majority of vegans are white in America, countries across the African diaspora have vegan dishes that include grains and vegetables. However, the popular foods that are seen in their restaurants do include animal products.
“As long as someone thinks, oh this is a white thing, this is an affluent thing, it’s a Hollywood thing, they’ll be less likely to participate in it because it’s marketed to people that are unlike them,” Jasmine Leyva, the director of “The Invisible Vegan,” said. “So they’re like, ‘Oh this doesn’t apply to me.’ But if you kind of reintroduce it like, ‘Hey, no, this is actually what a lot of our ancestors were doing. This is actually what a lot of our role models eat,’ then you have more people who pay attention who wouldn’t have gave it the time of day before.”
Infusing cultures and vegan food is a way chefs are introducing people of color to the endless flavorful vegan possibilities. Chefs incorporate traditional spices, such as curry, and swap out meats for plant-substitutes, like chickpeas, to experiment with the texture of their meatless meals.
“There’s so many different textures of vegetables. There’s mushy vegetables. There’s crunchy vegetables. And it’s just being able to play with the cultural flavors and infusing them into a plant-based meal,” Brathwaite said. “Also, things like tofu, they’re meant to absorb the flavor. So it’s definitely a different kind of cooking method that goes into it. But it also is really cool to kind of invent something new that you might not have been eaten before, but also have those same flavors that remind you of home.”
Queens-born Jamaica-raised vegan, Gigi Lawrence started her American and Jamaican-inspired vegan restaurant, Rastarant, in Hartford after noticing a lack of flavor and quality with vegan foods she ate at restaurants there.
“Vegan food is very bland and that’s one thing that separates me from the vegan restaurants,” Lawrence said. “I bring spices and flavor. You have to make sure that things are flavorful in the vegan culture if you want nonvegans to try it or atleast spread the word that it is good.”
Her customers consisted of family and friends when she started in January, then news of her business “spread like wildfire.” She saw a growing demand of flavorful vegan food in her neighborhood, where Black people are the majority at almost 35 percent of the population, according to Data USA. Her business is only one out of two vegan restaurants in Hartford.
Vegan restaurants and restaurants that offer vegan food are increasing across the country. Fifty-one percent of American restaurants included vegan food on their menus in 2018, which was an increase of 31 percent from the year prior, according to a Foodable Labs study. Data on the growing number of ethnic vegan food is unavailable, however, based on current trends, it is likely seeing an increase as well.
A common misconception about vegan and vegetarian food is that it is more expensive. A study by Sous Vide Guy revealed that people who eat meat spend $23 more a week than non meat eaters. This study correlates with the Food Price Outlook by the USDA, which predicted that meat will increase 6.5 percent this year, which is twice their usual rate.
Brianna Groover, owner of Bri the Fruit Dealer, didn’t see an increase in her monthly food bill when she made the switch to veganism. Farmer’s markets are one of the best options to shop for quality natural produce, as opposed to pricey food stores, such as Trader Joes and Whole Foods, said Groover. Distance has made her weekly shopping trips difficult, even after she picks peppers, tomatoes, corn, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables that grow in her backyard.
“I have to go faraway out [to buy healthy food], which is why I started my own business,” Groover said. “It’s hard to spread this message [of healthy eating] and you can’t give people good options to go to. They’re like ‘Oh, I have to drive this far for that to be healthy?’ It’s kind of discouraging.”
Access to fresh and affordable food is still an obstacle Black communities face whether they choose not to be vegan or vegetarians. In 2016, more than 20 percent of Black non-Hispanic households were affected by food insecurity, which is the highest of other races and ethnicities and twice as high as white nonhispanics, according to data from the USDA.
“It’s evident that in the black community– and this is across income–it doesn’t matter how much someone makes that we are more likely to be exposed to unhealthy food retailers when compared to the white population, and also, we are more likely to have the least access to healthy food retailers,” Dietitian and Research Associate at the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab at the University at Buffalo Lab Bianca Davis said. “So it’s the structural food environment component that we don’t even have access [to] and instead we have access to unhealthy food sources.”
The high rates of obesity in low-income and minority communities are related to the limited healthy food options and “higher density of fast-food outlets and convenience stores where they live,” according to a Am J Public Health study in 2004.
Solutions of food insecurity have come in the form of academic institutions studying food deserts, supporting policies that promote healthier food environments and communities taking change into their own hands with community gardens and fridges filled with fresh produce, milk, eggs and non-perishable items. More than 70 community fridges are on the streets of New York City.
“As black people, we should always definitely, number one, know that our health is valuable, and we have power over our health and if we do not have access to support our health, we need to definitely voice that,” Davis said.